Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913), called the “father of American sociology,” was born in Joliet, Illinois, on June 18, 1841, the youngest of ten children. He moved with his parents to Iowa in 1855, but returned to Illinois two years later after the death of his father. He attended a newly opened grammar school in St. Charles, and augmented his education by reading whatever came to hand, notably blood-curdling fiction. His first published story, written at the age of sixteen, was “The Spaniard’s Revenge,” which appeared in the St. Charles Argus in the spring of 1858. That year he moved to Myersburg, Pennsylvania, where he worked for his brother in the not very successful business of manufacturing wagon hubs. Lester turned to teaching school and studied at Susquehanna Collegiate Institute at Towanda from January 1861 to June 1862. He enlisted in the Union army in August 1862, only a few days after his secret marriage to Elisabeth Vought. He was wounded at Chancellorsville and discharged in November 1864. His situation at that time is summed up in his letter of February 8, 1865, to Abraham Lincoln, seeking support in his application for employment:
“My necessities are great. I have no regular home, am an orphan, have no trade, am physically disqualified for any laborious occupation, and have been out of employment nearly all Winter ... My motives are worthy. Though early left wholly dependent upon my own efforts, I long since resolved to give myself a thorough education. For seven years I have struggled against every form of adversity, till, by my habits of hard labor, hard study, economy and integrity, I found myself prepared for college and in a situation which placed me on the highway to that most cherished object. But when the trump of war sounded I sacrificed all to fight for my country.... And now that I am disabled, my prospects dimmed and three of my most precious years cancelled out of my education, I ask that Country to give me honorable employment.”He received his appointment as clerk in the Treasury Department. Meanwhile he continued his studies at home. He was able to convince President George W. Samson 1839 of Columbian College (now George Washington University) to arrange Saturday evening classes that clerks might attend, and resumed his formal education in March 1867. He received an A.B. degree in 1869, an LL.B. in 1871, and an A.M. in 1872, all from Columbian College. He left the Treasury Department for the United States Geological Survey. He was appointed geologist in 1883, and paleontologist in 1892.
Ward was best known as a pioneer in sociology. He published Dynamic Sociology in 1883; The Psychic Factors of Civilization in 1893; Outlines of Sociology in 1898; Pure Sociology in 1903; and Applied Sociology in 1906. Pure Sociology was used as a textbook at Brown soon after its publication. In 1906, Ward was known to desire an opportunity to leave government service for literary work, and, on the advice of the Department of Social Sciences, President Faunce agreed to appoint him professor of sociology. He taught for seven years while he prepared the manuscript of Glimpses of the Cosmos, and studied geology and botany. A Providence Journal editorial in 1941, when the Eastern Sociological Society met in Providence to observe the 100th anniversary of Ward’s birth, recalled his time at Brown:
“He taught advanced courses in social science in a shabby classroom in Maxcy Hall, where the windows rattled with every wind that blew and where coal gas from the basement furnace seeped generously up through the registers in the floor.Ward died on April 18, 1913 in Washington. The day before his death he had received the first volume of Glimpses of the Cosmos, a twelve volume set of his minor writings.
“He lived in a room in Caswell Hall, a room the walls of which were lined with books and the floors and window seats of which were piled high with more books, for which there was no other place. He slept on a couch in a corner of the room, and did all his work in an aged morris chair, across the arms of which he laid a wide board that served alike as a desk when he was writing and as a support for his book when reading.
“He smoked cigars that never smelled very good. His sparse white hair was seldom in order. He wore habitually a black suit liberally sprinkled with chalk dust, and a low spreading collar that allowed his Adam’s apple free rein. He was a tall, gangling man and walked with a pronounced stoop, as if sensitive of his height. That, with the peculiar manner of the carriage of his head, compelled by a Civil War battle wound, made it easily possible to identify ‘Doc’ practically as far away as one cound see him.
“Ward had made his name before he came to Brown. His books have been translated into many languages, some of which he knew and others of which he learned, simply so he could read the translations and ‘be sure they were right.’ To the outside world he was probably the most widely-known member of the University faculty. ...
“In the classroom ‘Doc’ never lectured. He talked, as if to intellectual equals whom he was trying to convince of the soundness of a contention. He rarely used a textbook. He used the blackboard. ... He paused sometimes over a point to remark in his croaky voice: ‘I have written a book about this’; then added quickly: ‘I don’t expect you to read it.’”